Friends of the Earth Australia is turning 50 next year. During its first five decades, the federation has constantly changed and evolved as new generations of activists have joined the organisation, external politics have changed, and new issues have emerged. But from its inception, it has seen itself as being a radical ecology group that recognises the need to transform our cultural, political and economic systems to sustainable and equitable social systems, if we are going to be able to protect the environment in the long term.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this article contains images of deceased people. All photos are from FoE's archives.
FoEA was a product of the new social movements of the early 1970s. Women’s liberation, gay and lesbian rights, a strong anti war movement, and the emerging Black Rights movements all influenced our political development in the early days. And so it made sense that connections and solidarity with First Nations people would always form the basis of our work.
Our longest running campaign - the struggle against nuclear power - has always been based on deep solidarity with traditional owners who have opposed uranium mining, nuclear testing, and waste dumping on their lands. A tour through old Chain Reaction magazines is a good reminder of the breadth of this work. From the struggle against the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory in the 1970s, meetings with the Oenpelli Aboriginal Community Council, an early FoE national meeting held at Little Nalangie Rock in Arnhem Land, and the struggle against plans to mine bauxite at Aurukun on Cape York peninsula, solidarity has always been important.
In those days there were almost no laws to protect First Nations land and culture. It was only in 1976 that the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was established. This was federal legislation that provided the basis upon which Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory could claim rights to land based on traditional occupation. As the years went on, there were more opportunities for Aboriginal communities to gain power over their future, the most obvious being the High court judgment over the Mabo v Queensland case which found in favour of Edie Mabo, and which led to the Native Title Act 1993 and established ‘native title’ in Australia.
About this time, we started to grapple with the concept of wilderness. While campaigning to protect areas of biodiversity forms the core of much of the efforts of the environment movement, we realised that ‘wilderness’ as a concept doesn’t exist in Australia. To understand that much of the landscape in Australia is culturally formed, created by millennia of Aboriginal burning and other land management, means we must think deeply about how we imagine ‘healthy’ land.
Like others in the environment movement, FoE recognises that all of Australia is Aboriginal land and that sovereignty was never ceded by any group or nation. We respect that different groups will seek to exercise their rights in different ways.
In the time of the Voice debate, we hear our allies in the Blak Sovereign movement who are clear in their position that ‘our sovereignty does not “co-exist” with the sovereignty of the Crown’.
Of course many individuals and communities stayed out of the native title process and it was often these groups that we aligned with. The grassroots struggles are where FoE could usually be found. For instance, the occupation against the Alcoa smelter in Portland in western Victoria in the early 1980s, all the way through to the Djab Wurrung camp opposing the destruction of significant cultural trees in the name of a freeway upgrade in 2020. Working with Gungalidda people in the Gulf Country we opposed the Century zinc mine in the 1990s, with Kerrup Jmara (a clan of the Gunditjmara) activists in western Victoria concerned about logging in the Cobboboonee forest in the late ‘90s, and the blockades of the Honeymoon uranium mine in the early 1980s are all examples of key grassroots collaborations.
There are three particular highlights that stand out in our long association with First Nations groups:
The Jabiluka campaign. With plans for a new uranium mine at Jabiluka in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory in the mid 1990s, FoE joined with other environment groups and the newly formed Jabiluka Action Groups to oppose this plan. What was different in this case is that First Nation leadership drove all aspects of the campaign. In March 1998, at the invitation of senior owner Yvonne Margarula, a blockade base camp was established near the site of the mine. By the time the campaign was done, more than 5,000 people had joined actions and blockades, all under the influence and leadership of Yvonne and other Mirrar traditional owners.
The ISG conferences. In 1997 and 1998, FoE hosted two ground breaking ‘Indigenous solidarity gatherings’ in Melbourne. These were intended to be grassroots, First Nation led spaces where indigenous and non indigenous activists could sit down and learn from each other and build shared solidarity. Both ISG events involved remarkable presentations from First Nations people from around the country, and deep alliances were forged. Key issues like Treaty, Paying the Rent, and campaigns like the struggle by the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta (a group of senior women from northern South Australia, who successfully resisted plans to force a radioactive waste facility on their land) gained profile in broader circles.
The Yorta Yorta win. Although FoE had enjoyed intermittent contact with the Yorta Yorta nation for many years, from the first ISG gathering in 1997, we deepened this connection, then formalised in it an agreement. The Yorta Yorta nations traditional lands focus on the Barmah and Millewa Forests along the Murray (Dungala) river. When FoE joined an occupation led by Yorta Yorta of the Dharnya cultural centre to oppose its closure, elders requested that we work with them to help regain traditional lands. The Barmah Millewa campaign was born and a decade later, in 2010, the Barmah National Park was proclaimed. The Yorta Yorta Traditional Owner Land Management Board was formed as part of an agreement signed between the Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation and the State of Victoria to nurture Barmah National Park back to health through a Joint Management Plan. This is the first Joint Management agreement in the state.
Of course we have got things wrong.
We are still primarily an organisation dominated by white, middle class people. FoE has sought to encourage First Nations people to feel comfortable to become involved in our campaigns. For a period of time in the 1990s - 2000s, we had a steering group composed of First Nation elders who provided advice and direction to our day to day campaigning and how and where we should be working. We have long ‘Paid the Rent’. At present this is done by allocating an amount of money which can then be accessed by grassroots First Nation activists (for instance a group may need to access travel funds to attend a conference or protest).
We seek to build lasting relationships with First Nations groups, and this means we need to develop a two way relationship. Often environmental groups go to indigenous people when they want something (eg endorsement of a campaign). A true two way relationship means supporting each other’s issues with time and resources.
We have failed to properly consult on specific campaigns. The anti fracking campaign in Victoria was an example of this. While FoE co-ordinated a state wide campaign that won the first ever permanent ban on the process of fracking in Australia, at the local level we did not always work closely with First Nations groups. And for many years the forests movement in general, including FoE, failed to consult deeply about First Nations aspirations for their country. But we have tried, and continue to try, to be good allies.
In the 1990s we sided with First Nation aspirations in north Queensland at the height of the ‘Sanctuary movement’ where some environmental groups were opposing first Nations access to country. And now, with an end to native forest logging in Victoria scheduled for January 1 2024, we have an historic opportunity to demonstrate that the environment movement meant it when it said ‘we recognise sovereignty’. First Nations will start to assert their interests through managing country across Victoria. What they decide to do may be difficult for environment groups to accept or support. How we respond in coming months will show how deep our statements of solidarity really are.